Thursday, June 6, 2013

Horseshoe Curve National Historic Landmark

Horseshoe Curve National Historic Landmark is located just outside Altoona, Pennsylvania.  I had been there as a child and decided to return while I was in Pennsylvania.

The gift shop and museum are located below the level of the rail line.  After paying the admission fee you can either take the 194 steps to the viewing area or take the funicular.

The funicular only runs on the hour and half past.  It runs on a single track with cars passing half way up.  The cars are painted to resemble Pennsylvania Railroad passenger cars.

This gate guardian sits on viewing level near the tracks.

Construction of the horseshoe curve began in 1850 as a way to bypass a section of track that was inefficient.  The rail line needed to run from one side of the valley to the other.  To do so along the preferred route would require a grade of over 4%.  This would be too steep for most trains.

To solve this problem, the rail was laid up the valley.  Another mountain ran up the valley causing it to split in two.  Here the rail crossed the split and the end of the mountain that caused the valley to separate and curved back to the mouth of the valley.  The resulting track was about 3500 feet in length and creates a 220 degree turn allowing the rail bed to rise 122 feet.

At one time there were 4 sets of tracks, but one set was removed in 1981.  Because of the radius of the turn, tracks wear out very fast here and need to be replaced often.  

It was an ingenious design and very practical.  Since it's opening on February 14th, 1854 the only time that it has not been in use has been the result of weather or strikes.  Other than that, it has run continuously for the past 159 years.  Not bad for something that was built using pick axes, wheel barrows, shovels, black powder and the muscle power of 450 Irish.  The workers were paid $0.25/day for a 12 hour day.

Horseshoe Curve was deemed so vital that it was a target of Operation Pastorius, a plan by the Germans to sabotage facilities in the United States in an effort to help the war effort back home.  The plot failed when one of the saboteurs turned himself in.

Currently about 60 trains a day can be seen passing this location.  In the 35 minutes or so that I was there half a dozen trains passed with several more passing while I was in the museum below.  A schedule of trains is free in the gift shop.


  1. Who in thier right mind would want to go see a bunch of trains...Trains are the devil I tell you.

    Nice pictures though. This is a thought for a trip at some point though.

    1. I think there are two Amtrak trains that pass through there, but I don't recall which ones.